September 17, 2009
The big tent of the atheists
Regular readers of this blog know that I frequently fall prey to the temptation to classify things in groups. I would have been in my element as a 19th century biologist implementing the Linnaean classification scheme of all living things. Recently I have been thinking that the term 'atheist' is associated with too narrow a meaning. In fact, I think that there are six different types of atheist.
The most common type of atheist is the explicit atheist. These are the people who say openly that they do not believe that god exists, and this is the group to whom the label is commonly believed to apply.
Then we have the covert atheists. These are people who no longer believe that god exists but do not feel that they can openly say so. The climate for atheists can be quite hostile in some parts of the world, enough to be socially ostracized or even lose one's job, requiring such people to keep mum about their lack of belief. Others may keep quiet because they belong to religious families and may not want to upset loved ones by speaking about their lack of belief. I suspect that the ranks of elected officials in the US or those seeking such office have a large number of covert atheists.
Other covert atheists work for religious institutions as priests or rabbis or ministers or imams. I have argued before that there is likely to be a high level of covert atheism among religious intellectuals, with the faculty of religion departments in colleges and theological seminaries, upper levels of the clergy, and the Pope being particularly good candidates.
But others may keep quiet about their atheism simply because they like belonging to churches, perhaps for the camaraderie (in many small towns the church and school are the main venues for social gatherings), perhaps because they like to sing in the choir, or because religious institutions provide avenues for social activism. Such people are willing to not speak of their atheism in return for enjoying these benefits.
Then there are the functional atheists. These are people who, while they may or may not say anything about their belief or disbelief in god, or even bother much with this question, live their lives as if god does not exist.
Then there are the agnostic atheists. These are people (like Charles Darwin and Carl Sagan) who reject the label of atheist and choose to call themselves agnostics because they have bought into the mistaken belief that atheists are certain that there is no god. Since they don't think one can know such a thing for certain, they call themselves agnostics. As I have argued before, such people are mistaken about what being an atheist implies and they could just as easily call themselves atheists without changing their views in any way.
The fifth category consists of the people I have been writing about recently, such as Karen Armstrong, H. E. Baber, and Robert Wright. They are the people who say they do believe in a god but when they go on to describe their object of belief, it turns out that they do not believe in anything that any traditional believer could relate to, since their god does absolutely nothing but seems to be simply an idea or an object of contemplation. I have called these people worshippers in the Church of the Slacker God but a snappier label for them might be the seemingly oxymoronic religious atheists.
Interestingly, R. Albert Mohler, who is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, also sees people like Armstrong as atheists, whatever they call themselves, and seems to agree with me that that her kind of defense of god essentially concedes the debate to atheists. He calls Armstrong's argument 'superficial' and 'theologically reckless' and 'elegant nonsense', writing that "the exchange in The Wall Street Journal [between Armstrong and Richard Dawkins] turns out to be a meeting of two atheist minds. The difference, of course, is that one knows he is an atheist when the other presumably claims she is not. Dawkins knows a fellow atheist when he sees one. Careful readers of The Wall Street Journal will come to the same conclusion."
The final category is the spiritual atheist. As the powerful arguments of the atheists sink in and people realize that they cannot be refuted, you can expect to hear many more statements of the "I am not religious but I am spiritual" kind, which usually signals that the speaker is on the way to atheism (or at least has given up on god) but is as yet unwilling to acknowledge this to herself or to others. Because the word spiritual has such an elastic meaning it provides a way out of the impasse for those who shy away from embracing the label of atheism but don't want to be lumped with religious believers either. As usual, Jesus and Mo have a funny take on this.
The people known as 'accommodationists', who claim that the scientific and religious worldviews are either compatible or feel that the incompatibility should not be highlighted, can be found in all these groups. That label describes less of a personal belief and more of a preference for a political strategy.
So we see that atheists are 'big tent' people, welcoming all those who seek to escape from the intellectual straitjacket that religions put on people.
POST SCRIPT: Nutters day out
Max Blumenthal mingles with the crowd at last weekend's demonstration in Washington DC which seemed to bring out the nutters. Some of these people are major-league weird.
And talking of nutters, you may be wondering what Orly Taitz, the person who was leading the 'birther' movement, has been up to. Her most recent case (one of many she has filed that challenged Obama's right to deploy someone to Iraq because he had not proved his citizenship) was thrown out yesterday by a judge who, in a ruling remarkable for its mixture of ridicule and sarcasm, warned her that if she wastes the court's time again with such nonsense, she would face sanctions
Taitz's response to this stinging rebuke? She thinks the judge should be tried for treason! With Orly, the fun never ends.
A motion to have her disbarred for misconduct reveals depths of idiocy that even I had not imagined. This document is a list of just allegations that have not been proven but if even a small fraction are true they reveal a level of wackiness on Taitz's part that borders on delusional.